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Energy Dept. Provides Funding for Hydrogen Research

Hydrogen Fuel cell bus with zero emissions. (AdobeStock_308564950, Oleksandr)

Green Energy Times staff

The U.S. Department of Energy announced on July 2 that it is providing a total of $52.5 million to 31 projects to accelerate development of clean hydrogen technology. The projects are working on solving the technological issues for clean hydrogen production, storage, distribution, and use. The funding is part of the Hydrogen Energy Earthshot initiative intended to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen and make it easier to produce.

Hydrogen can take a major place in the switch away from fossil fuels and help us deal with the climate crisis. It can be used as a combustion fuel, but unlike natural gas or most other such fuels, burning it creates no carbon dioxide.

Most hydrogen manufactured today is made from natural gas. This is a problem because there are emissions associated with the process, so, while burning the hydrogen may be clean, creating it is usually not. By contrast, clean hydrogen, or green hydrogen, is created by hydolysis of water, a process in which electricity breaks up water molecules to produce hydrogen and oxygen molecules. If the electricity is generated by solar, wind, or another renewable energy source, the entire process can be free of emissions.

While hydrogen can be used as a combustion fuel, it can also be used in fuel cells to produce electricity directly. In either of these cases, the by-product is water. It also has other uses. It can be used to form ammonia, for example, which in turn has a wide variety of uses. A recent study found that hydrogen could be used as a replacement for natural gas, even with the pipelines filled to 100% with hydrogen, providing that the equipment using it is adjusted for its characteristics. It could fuel a gas range, for example.

The worldwide emergence of hydrogen technology is something that has to be observed carefully to be understood. Many governments, across the world, and many private companies are investing heavily in hydrogen technologies. Some of the fossil fuel and utility companies are putting large amounts of money into developing clean hydrogen generating systems.

The Biden administration has been setting goals that include a sharp reduction in the use of fossil fuels to avoid the worst of climate change. Clean hydrogen fits into that set of goals rather well.

The technological problems are not trivial, however. On the one hand, some of them are already being addressed. New catalysts have been developed to make the creation of hydrogen out of water more efficient, for example. And as such things are developed, the cost of hydrogen will almost certainly decline.

On the other hand, hydrogen has some difficult characteristics. It has a tendency to make some metals brittle. It also leaks directly through the sides of steel tanks that might be used to hold it, because hydrogen molecules are so small that they can fit between atoms in the alloys that hold them. Such leaks are rather slow, so steel can be used to store hydrogen effectively, over the short term of days to a few weeks. Another issue is that hydrogen is not particularly energy dense, by volume, because it has to be stored as a gas for many applications. It might turn out to be useful as a fuel for ships, aboard which it could be stored in liquid form, but not for cars.

The potential value of hydrogen is so high, however, that it should not be ignored. And we are still at a point where we have not investigated the full scope of its potential uses.

Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm spoke about it recently. “Part of our path to a net-zero carbon future means investing in innovation to make clean energy sources like hydrogen more affordable and widely adopted so we can reach our goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” she said. “These projects will put us one step closer to unlocking the scientific advancements needed to create a strong domestic supply chain and good-paying jobs in the emerging clean hydrogen industry.”

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